Northwest Pilot Project takes care of an especially vulnerable group of people. Homeless seniors. I know. Hard to believe we have them in Portland. You might be surprised how many…

Jessica Larson is a Housing Specialist at Northwest Pilot Project.

“Our job is really to be the safety net for people ages 55 and older who are experiencing a housing crisis. That works runs a wide range of interventions and supports that we can provide, but really the heart of our work is working with very low income people, often incomes below $1200 a month, and actually more often incomes at about $800 or less.

“We most specifically work with people in the age ranges between 55 to 65, but our services are available to anyone who still can and wants to live independently at whatever age.”

At their offices on the corner of SW Broadway and Clay downtown – Northwest Pilot Project offers walk-in hours three days a week.

In my conversation with Jessica Larson, she says there’s never a shortage of potential clients.

“We meet probably 25 to 30 new individuals from Multnomah County every week and they get hooked up immediately with a case worker who works with them from that moment until they no longer need our services.”

“You said 25-30 a week?”

“That’s correct. New people that we are seeing here at Northwest Pilot Project.”

“Wow. Why?”

“Actually, the need is even greater. We don’t get to see everybody that comes through our doors. We hope that they come back if they don’t get seen the first time. So it’s hard to know how much greater the need is, but we are everyday turning away people. The reason why is because there simply is not enough affordable housing in this region. It’s a nationwide problem. I think it’s especially extreme here in Multnomah County. We have a two percent vacancy rate, which is comparable to only New York City. And this squeezes out the very lowest income renters.”

Meet Willie Bradford

Willie Bradford

Willie Bradford. Photo credit: Robert Parish

“I became disabled in 2005. I had a head injury. A plate in my head and seventy screws. So, it’s impossible for me to work.”

Like many homeless seniors, Willie Bradford found out about Northwest Pilot Project at a church.

“You came to Portland and found there was this organization called Northwest Pilot Project. You met up with them, what’s been going on since then?”

“They helped me get a place. And ever since then everything’s been going uphill. They give you hope. And, that’s a big thing for me. You know, to start all over after so many years; being out there in the streets, it’s just truly a blessing.”

“What can you tell me and the folks listening to this about homeless life here in Portland?”

“That’s a good one. Homeless life here in Portland…It’s rough. I mean…There’s a lot of organizations that will help out as far as your food and stuff like that. But, it’s rough. It’s really hard to describe. You know, when something comes up like Northwest Pilot Project, it gives you hope. That’s the only way I can really describe it. It’s an excellent organization and I advise anybody that’s out there that needs some help to get off the streets, they should check them out.”

“When you say hope. Define that a little further for me.”

“You know how when one’s life hasn’t been the way they want it. Once you become down, you can either stay there or someone will come along and give you hope. And that’s what I mean by that.”

“The hope then that Northwest Pilot Project has given you…Things are moving up?”

“Yes, it’s elevating. Not only that. I’m working for Street Roots, and it’s a homeless paper. It’s a good organization also.”

“When you look back to when you first came here to where things are now.

What can you tell me about that?”

“I feel great. My health is good. I’m getting aware of some relief. And, that’s another thing about hope. I’m getting some relief. It is a way I can get in and stay in, you know.”

“You told me that Northwest Pilot Project helps people who are older than 55. You don’t look older than 55. How old are you, do you mind me asking?”

“I’m 58 years old. Like I said, I feel great now. When I first got here, I didn’t feel too well. I didn’t know which way to go. But, I kept digging in until I ran into the Northwest Pilot People.”

Willie Bradford’s heartfelt story echoes that of many Northwest Pilot Project clients.

Meet Wendy Barner

“I was kind of knocked off my feet, the rug pulled out from under me. It kind of coincided with a car crash and I just had a series of events happen to me that were unforeseen, and I kept thinking this is gonna stop and it didn’t. And then I was spending too much money on rent…So, it was kind of unexpected and quite humbling. Northwest Pilot Project got me a new bed and a welcoming packet for the apartment because everything I had had been depleted. I felt so loved. I kept thinking this is so sweet. And I got a quilt from them that someone had made. Wow. I really felt like there were loving arms coming around me. And I just so appreciated it. I was really in awe and very humbled by the experience.

“I’d never been a senior before and it was really quite shocking. All of a sudden I was really feeling like I could actually be homeless if something doesn’t pull through here in the last minute. And, on top of that – all of a sudden I’m a senior and what really struck me the most was talking to the other clients in the front office and listening to the stories, all the different walks of life, where they came from and what they were experiencing. So, it’s really been a huge education…And then one of the clients said yeah and put being sick on top of that, because some of them were sick or injured, or can’t walk. And, I’m like wow! It was really eye opening to be a senior and financially distressed, it really is a whole new level of scary.”

Like Wendy Barner, Johnny D. unexpectedly fell on tough times.

“I went through a breakup and it sent my world swirling. And Northwest Pilot Project was there to help me out. They’re like you’re way over 55. You’ve had an injury in the back and your social security is sort of playing around with you. They helped me get my social security in order. They helped me rearrange my ID. They helped me with a living situation. And, they’ve just been there to back me up 100 percent. Everything that I needed they plugged in and asked what can we help you out with, what do you need?”

June — a Multnomah County senior — found herself struggling after her landlord decided to remodel her apartment of 20 years, giving her 60 days to move out.

“You know I’m thinking where must I go? Where can I get help? So I found out about the Pilot Project and they were able to help me. It was very hard for me to find an apartment in the dead cold of winter. Not many people move in the winter. It’s slim to none trying to find an apartment. And it was very hard and stressful being a disabled senior. I was just so stressed out to the max to the point that I had gotten depressed. I had hair loss. I lost two or three inches of my hair. The Pilot Project paid for my movers to move my furniture in and out of storage. They paid for my deposit for my apartment. They paid for three weeks of my motel. And they also had purchased a bed for me because I didn’t have a bed.”

And, Steve Bishop’s world fell apart after he became unemployed.

“Last year, last January I went homeless after I lost my job. And so I come back in here in September. Since September, I’ve been up and down. But they’ve been behind me 100 percent and changed my life around. I was waking up every morning wondering what I was going to do with my life. And now that they’ve got me into a place just last week, out of the shelter and into a place, I can start planning for my future. I went to my first computer class today because I had time. I’m secure now because of Northwest Pilot Project. And cause of Jessica. She’s an angel.”

Which brings us back to Jessica Larson.

“When we’re talking about people 55 and older, I think that there are some unique characteristics to the housing crisis for folks at this age. I think the market naturally discriminates against age. And when there is high unemployment still, it’s harder to be someone in your mid to late 50’s and be competitive in the job market. Also people who have been doing physical work much of their life have a harder time keeping up with that pace of work, and that kind of work, and are less marketable because the haven’t attained other kinds of skills, and or they can’t keep pace with people younger doing physical work.”

“In the work that you do… Obviously, you’re making a difference. Do you get frustrated sometimes by the fact that maybe you’re not making as big of a difference as you would like to make?”

“Yes. I am actually very frustrated eight years into my career because I can look back on my time here at Northwest Pilot Project and see how my work has changed. The same scenario I might be presented with with a new client; when I started eight years ago, the solution we could offer to them may have taken us one week. It may have taken us three or four months. Now, those same solutions are taking us three months to one year. That means we’re working with people longer, their needs are greater, their health is more compromised, the wait times for shelter are longer, so people are left out in the cold more often. It means that I have less to offer each year to goes by, I have less resources to offer each new individual in crisis. That becomes incredibly frustrating. And, it’s really hard to reason with because it seems so wrong.”

More information about Northwest Pilot Project.